From the Desk of Robert Jarvenpa: The Misuses of Biology

Robert Jarvenpa is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Albany and a research associate at the New York State Museum. He is the coauthor of Circumpolar Lives and Livelihood: A Comparative Ethnoarchaeology of Gender and Subsistence (Nebraska, 2006) and author of Northern Passage: Ethnography and Apprenticeship among the Subarctic Dene.


The Misuses of Biology: Writing Declared Defective

Sometimes ideas for projects remain in an embryonic state, gestating in the back of one’s mind for years. This was the case with the research that led to the writing of Declared Defective: Native Americans, Eugenics, and the Myth of Nam Hollow (Nebraska, 2018). In the 1970s I began familiarizing myself with the ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature on the Mohicans, Algonquian-speaking peoples of the mid-Hudson valley in what is now upstate New York and adjacent western New England. The Mohicans were contacted by the Dutch in the early seventeenth century and were largely displaced from their indigenous homeland by the late eighteenth century.

By sheer chance, back in the 1970s, I was also immersing myself in early criminology literature. An influential pioneering work, Richard Dugdale’s 1877 “The Jukes”: A study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity, captured my attention. Dugdale’s work would inspire an entire genre of eugenics family studies in the early twentieth century. These works asserted that poverty, criminality, feeblemindedness, and sexual promiscuity, among other things, were biologically inherited. The eugenicists targeted rural enclaves of impoverished outcastes who were shunned by the surrounding society. They conflated poverty and social marginality with hereditary degeneracy. Their take home lesson was that innately defective people should be targeted for sterilization to prevent the reproduction of their kind and the spread of their faulty “germ plasm” into the general population. This message resonated with the Progressive era political climate of the times that called for a cleansing and reforming of society.

Although eugenics fell out of favor among most researchers by the 1930s, it lingered in popular thought and consciousness for decades thereafter. I recall that my college psychology textbook from the 1960s invoked the Jukes and the Kallikaks as evidence for the inheritance of criminality and feeblemindedness. It was the name “Jukes,” however, that initially propelled my own research for Declared Defective. I knew that several communities of mixed-race Mohicans (that is, descendants of Mohican-European intermarriages) remained in their traditional homeland long after most of their Indian ancestors had migrated westward to Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century. These remnant groups were known by names such as Jukes, Bushwhackers, and Van Guilders.

I suspected that the Jukes of Dugdale’s study derived from a mixed-race community, possibly of partial Mohican background. But why would Dugdale use “Jukes” as a pseudonym for people known by that same name? This issue perplexed me for some time. Indeed, it remains a problem worthy of further ethnohistoric research. Then, in the late 1980s, I encountered the papers of Arthur H. Estabrook housed in the Special Collections and Archives of my own university’s library at the University at Albany, SUNY. Estabrook was a prominent early eugenics researcher and biologist who, along with his colleague and supervisor at the Eugenics Record Office, Charles B. Davenport, wrote one of the earliest eugenics family studies: The Nam Family: A Study in Cacogenics.

The term “cacogenics” in the subtitle of their 1912 monograph signaled the authors’ preoccupation with allegedly bad genes or bad “germ plasm.” Molecular DNA and the precise mechanisms of biological inheritance were unknown at that time. Nonetheless, the eugenicists were intellectually committed to purporting that unfit people inherited their alleged defects biologically. After digging through Estabrook’s papers, an “Aha!” moment occurred when I realized that the pseudonymic Nam (Man spelled backwards) were the mixed-race Van Guilders. I sensed that there was an important story about Mohican history and culture, and about pseudoscientific zealotry, buried in the archival material.


Due to long-term research commitments in the Arctic and Central America, I would not get to work on that story for a couple decades. When I eventually returned to the Estabrook papers and other archival collections, the ingredients for Declared Defective began to fall into place. It was no accident that Estabrook and Davenport chose a mixed-race outcaste community for their investigation. Like other eugenicists, they loathed miscegenation and assumed that such race mixing itself was proof of degeneracy and lesser worth. And because they lacked sophistication and interest in historical and cultural analysis, they dismissed or overlooked the knowledge and behaviors that revealed the Van Guilders’ Mohican background and their creative coping strategies after migrating from western Massachusetts to upstate New York after the American Revolution.

In short, Declared Defective exposes the misuses of biology that plagued the eugenics movement. Estabrook and Davenport’s portrayal of the Nams’, or Van Guilders’, innate degeneracy was based on class prejudice and ignorance of the hybridic subculture of their subjects, not on a rigorous assessment of biological inheritance. Many of the behaviors deriving from the Van Guilders’ indigenous heritage, including a mixed hunting-fishing-horticultural livelihood, seasonal nomadism, basketmaking, and peddling, among other things, were grotesquely mischaracterized as evidence of genetic defectiveness. The Mohican Van Guilders are also a microcosm of the numerous mixed-race communities throughout the eastern United States whose Native American histories and identities have been hidden or submerged in response to rejection and mistreatment by the larger society.





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